Can these Junipers be Saved?


My latest gardening obsession is making over the landscape in front of my housing co-op offices, where the top priority is to do something about the overgrown junipers. Planted too close to the sidewalk and doors, they’d been sheared back, which caused much unsightly needle-browning.

The problem wasn’t just that they were encroaching onto sidewalks, either. Their looming presence over the doors made the female staffers feel less than safe as they exited, especially at night. Something had to be done, and right away.

So the team of staff and volunteers working on this decided to have the junipers closest to the sidewalk removed, and it was super-gratifying to watch those bad boys being yanked out of the ground by a Bobcat excavator.

Unfortunately, this exposed even more dieback and browning in the adjacent junipers (above). So ugly.

But man, I live for pruning projects like this! Oh, the mountain of dead juniper branches I gleefully (obsessively) compiled, ignoring the dozen or so cuts on my arms, blood and all. Who notices these things when they’re absorbed in the job? (And with industrial-grade loppers, too!)

These next two photos show the junipers after I’d removed all the dead parts. Kinda sculptural, right? And I’ve been telling everyone that when spring comes, these bare trunks will “green up” and look new.

Except apparently they won’t. I went back to Google to double-check on that bit, homing in on a source I trust – Bert Cregg, an actual “Garden Professor,” in Fine Gardening Magazine. The relevant text and photos from his article “How to Prune Conifers”:

I’ll be writing to the good Professor Cregg about the “few exceptions,” in hopes that our junipers quality.

A bit more research yields more bad news, though, this time from SFGate’s Home Guide on the subject:

When trimming junipers, not cutting down to bare stems is crucial: always leave some green foliage, because bare wood will not grow foliage.

Cut down overgrown junipers if pruning will result in mostly bare wood. It is easier to replace such junipers with new, smaller shrubs than to try to rejuvenate old, nearly bare wood shrubs.

Crap! Our only hope may be to cover those bare trunks with the fast-growing flowering shrubs we’re planting in front of them – Ninebarks and Spireas – and going all in on turning those junipers into sculptures.

SF Gate’s guide went on to criticize the shearing of junipers, but with an even curiouser qualifier:

Shearing is not recommended for junipers, although it is often practiced for pyramidal junipers when a formal look is desired. Shearing causes dense outer growth, which shades the interior of the shrub and makes it more susceptible to needle browning and branch dieback caused by drying winds.

That bit in italics makes me wonder why shearing of pyramidal junipers wouldn’t also result in the dreaded needle browning and branch dieback. But if true, it explains how this landscape contractor somewhere in the Balkans can do this with impunity:


  1. I would say just remove them and start fresh. Abelia is a nice evergreen that would tolerate the heat on the buildings south side. Nandina is another and use a liriope *Majestic or Royal Purple) edging for sure. Liriope blooms at the same time as sedum autumn joy, so there is a great low maintenance combination. Perhaps through in a few prickly pears for summer flowering and foliar contrast. No watering needed for any of this. I buy wholesale from these guys, good prices.

  2. Low growing evergreens like junipers tend to break or spread under a load of snow. So, when you remove the lower limbs, you’ve removed the support for the upper limbs making the juniper more prone to snow breakage. Besides, I personally am not a fan of the ornamental look. When I see that look, the first thing that pops into my mind is “human” not “plant.” Junipers are really meant to have a more natural feel. The guy in the Juniper trimming video does that more than once a year to keep the limbs producing. But, that look? So 20th century. I’d remove your junipers. (I finally removed mine 15 years after trimming them in the 90s.) I’d place more open evergreens where winter juncos and white-throated sparrows can safely sit while they relax between shelled sunflower meals from seeds that fall from a feeder placed by the staff. It’s the birds and butterflies that can encourage an interest in gardening back at their own homes once the workday ends.

  3. I had this problem at my property here in Provence. I have some landscape training, and decided to do a modified Japanese style, exposing the good parts of the structure and thinning and shaping the upper branches. Looks beautiful and I get many compliments. I even added a stone lantern.

  4. I really like the sculptural look and haven’t had or seen snow load problems (mind you we don’t get the lake affect snow upstate New York gets). The issue may be what to do in the area under the branches.

  5. I give up !! after trying 6 different of the damn captcha codes I still couldn’t get my rather lengthy message to go through. Damn captcha codes…

  6. Sometimes, the better question is not “can they be saved,” but “should they be saved?” And I’m a vote for “not saved.” No more spraying for bagworms, no more (in my case) worrying about whether the pack rats are moving in for shelter, no more browning underneath, no more overgrown monstrosities harboring trash and potential muggers. Out! Out, I say!

  7. May I ask why you selected ninbark as a replacement? Most cultivars are going to be 5 feet tall or larger, making the replacement plant bigger than what was already there.

    I am with many of the others. Remove the entire lot of juniper, start over and select plants that will be appropriately sized for what you want.

    • The height of the junipers wasn’t the problem – they were planted too close to the sidewalk. We left the farther-away ones and planted 2 Ninebarks as focal points.

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